Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cigarettes : Prison :: Tollhouse Cookies : My Life

My mother loved breakfast, every bit of it. I could tell that she felt highly virtuous when she prepared a breakfast for me that she thought was especially fabulous.  I remember her placing a plate of French Toast in front of me when I was little; you could practically see the thought bubble over her head – “I am a Great Mom.”

Of course, in the obstinate way of children everywhere, I hated breakfast, every bit of it. I’d never met a fried egg or a waffle that I liked, even remotely. As soon as I could break free of the tyranny of French Toast, I gravitated to microwaved baked potatoes, turkey sandwiches and reheated leftovers.  

I thought of this recently when I was home one afternoon, churning out sheet after sheet of Tollhouse cookies from the oven. The girls had friends over, and, the friends being teenaged boys, they were delighted beyond measure at the appearance of warm, home-baked cookies.  “This is great!” one of them burbled to me. “Are you a chef or something?” I noticed a raised eyebrow from one of the girls. In their minds, there is nothing remotely cheflike about me. They stopped eating my cookies a long time ago. Like me, they understand the cookies to be currency in mommyworld, a place crowded with carpoolers who take on late night shifts, friends who invite us to their cabins, librarians who help us search for missing books and countless other souls who could benefit from a bit of grease for their wheels.  

I use cookies the way prisoners use cigarettes, and I distribute them as often as possible. The only secret to my recipe is consistency over creativity. I always have a batch about to be cooked, recently baked or heading to the freezer. 

Since my kids stopped paying attention long ago, they always seem surprised when friends, like those boys the other day, show interest in the cookies as something other than a method of barter. 
I still remember a summer afternoon several years ago, when Mary Katherine and her best friend Olivia were preschoolers.  They were finishing lunch at the kitchen table, and Mary Katherine, never one to linger over a meal when something really fun could be happening instead, nibbled the last bit of her bagel and said, “Let’s go back downstairs to play.” (A beautiful summer day, for these two, was always the perfect chance to hole up in the basement for an epic session of Barbies.) “I’ve got some cookies in the oven,” I said, “and if you can wait, they’ll be ready in just a couple minutes.”

“No,” Mary Katherine replied firmly, unwilling to be delayed another moment. “We have to get going.”

“I’d like a cookie,” said Olivia, softly, and her statement was accompanied by a little wince, as if she expected trouble.

From Mary Katherine, a deep, aggrieved sigh. She leaned against the wall, tiny arms crossed and teeny foot tapping, while her poor friend showed the bad judgment of waiting for a freshly baked cookie to emerge from the oven.

Olivia, the pig, finally ate her one cookie, displaying the sort of guilt one sees on the faces of nurses puffing away on Virginia Slims outside hospital entrances. They headed off to Barbieland, and I got back to work with the dough.

I’ve never fooled myself, as my mother used to believe about the French Toast, that being the sort of person who makes cookies qualifies me for Good Mom status. Kids bring their own yardsticks to the game, and they’re the ones who do the measuring. 

I’m sure the beautiful, well-groomed mothers hear about the friends whose moms are fabulous cooks; the homey types are tortured with tales of the highly accomplished. No matter what the measurement, I understand that I’ve got a limited range. I’ll never be a fashion plate, a career diva or even a decent driver. All I can do is all I can do, and, most days, all I can do is bake Tollhouse cookies.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Dead Beagle Under the Bed (Another Adventure in Parenting Teenagers)

I went to bed early on Friday night, my head full of springtime in the worst possible sense. I was sure that a long stretch of blissfully uninterrupted slumber would restore me to pre-pollen levels of bright-eyed vigor.

Four hours later, I was sitting in my brightly lit kitchen, delivering curfew-breaking punishments to two-thirds of my teen population-in-residence, and knowing that I would not be able to put in even a half a wink for the rest of the night.

For those of you who can’t wait for the little ones to grow up so you can finally sleep through the night, I can only say, good luck with that.

There wasn’t a great deal of yelling at 1:45 a.m. on Saturday morning, which I’m sure the curfew violators appreciated. They’d given a ride to someone, gotten lost … at this point, not even hearing them, I just held out my hand for the cell phone. This was serious. The cell phone is the Jedi Lightsaber of a sixteen-year-old. But Emma knew better than to plead that she’d be unable to defend herself against Imperial Stormtroopers, or even to text her boyfriend. She passed it over and I climbed back upstairs for a few hours of sleepless deep-breathing exercises, teeth grinding and insomnia.

I don’t have to punish very often these days, so it’s a muscle I need to flex and stretch a bit before I jump right into full-tilt chastisement. While I did consider adding some hair curlers and clutching a rolling pin, so I could look exactly like a cartoon version of Angry Woman at One A.M., I decided that my own face, in its current state, would be fright enough. I always remember my boyfriend Winston Churchill in times like these (don’t make fun of me; we’re very close), who warned that the gleeful vindictiveness of Versailles would cause trouble someday. And if you think that raising children is nothing like conducting a world war or negotiating a peace treaty, then you haven’t met my kids. I just shut up and get it over with; usually by the point of punishment, they’ve suffered enough just anticipating the inevitable.

As I thrashed about at 3 a.m., feeling truly awful, I had one of those “live every day as if it were your last” moments. Because I am maudlin and self-pitying (read:  Irish), I usually translate that feeling into, “I wish I could drop dead right now.” I blew my nose (for the three hundredth time since midnight) and pictured the blissful nirvana awaiting those who croaked from the deadly combination of teenagers and head colds.

Then I realized that, upon finding my dead body the next day, Emma’s first thought would not be, “Gosh, I’ll miss her, she made really good spring rolls,” but “where did she hide my confiscated cell phone?”

And this, of course, made me think of the Dead Beagle. I have a friend whose beloved elderly beagle finally died in its sleep one December night. The passing was bittersweet, but troublesome, since the December night in question was Christmas Eve, and they had to keep the poor dead beagle under their bed until the corpse could be brought into the veterinarian on Boxing Day. It put a bit of a pall on the Yuletide Festivities, as you can imagine.

I began to laugh to myself, picturing Emma barking, “Just stuff her under the bed for a while; no one will notice. First things first – we have to Find That Cell Phone!” And that’s how I made it through a miserable night – creating a farce that rivaled the Story of the Dead Beagle, imagining my teenager losing her mind because I shuffled off the mortal coil before I could tell her where I had hidden the goods.

I made it to dawn. I got up and made coffee. I had a day full of earnest conversations and family minutiae. I finally got a good night’s sleep last night and she gets her cell phone back today. But I know there will always be times when parenting proves so grating that I long for a Big Exit instead of the Daily Cameo Appearance I’ve been making in her life the past 5,800 and some-odd days.

That beagle had a good idea – slip away, but cause a little trouble as you head out, just to make sure they never forget you.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thanks a Million, Literally: Report from a Foot Soldier in the Mommy Volunteer Corps

For regular people, May is a month of flowers and fun and celebration.  For women with school-aged children, it is the start of an unrelenting slog of baking, gifting and volunteering that ends only on the last day of school, which shimmers like a desert oasis in the distant reaches of June. Eventually, it will all be over, but first we have to survive May. We’re not even one-third of the way through this month, and already I’ve whipped up treats for Teacher Appreciation Day, stood in Thank You Staff! breakfast serving lines, organized gift donation collections for beloved coaches, and attended more than my share of “one last” concerts, recitals and banquets. Just thinking about the upcoming multi-layered events of high school graduation makes me want to pour gin on my morning Cheerios and call it day already.

The first thing I should say is that any effort put forth toward thanking the usually thankless souls who attempt to educate my children is well worth it.  At a Teacher Appreciation Day event this year, a public high school staffer told me, "I felt so bad all winter.  It seemed like all I heard on the news was what a bad person I was for being a public employee.  When my alarm went off this morning, I thought, 'Someone is going to appreciate me today!'" I wished I could offer this woman a limo and spa day, instead of bagels & cream cheese in the Media Center; she deserved it.

My children have attended a variety of institutions of lower and mid-level learning in what passes as their educational careers to date, and I’ve observed that, if you really want to figure out what a school is all about, forget the curriculum and the web site and do some research on the volunteers. In my day, I’ve lent a helping hand (or had it slapped) at schools whose culture ranged from Help Us We’re Desperate, to Go Away We Don’t Need Anything from the Likes of You, to Nasty Sorority Hazing Re-enactments, Our Specialty.

My favorite by far was the Help Us We’re Desperate school, the first one Emma attended. A city-based public school, it had free lunch participation of around 85%. Finding a mommy volunteer with a car, a command of English and some free time was rare, so the few of us who could manage to show up were treated like modern-day manifestations of Virgin of Guadalupe. (“A parent? Here to HELP?” the overworked teachers would practically sob in gratitude.) Whatever I did seemed to be just right – from hanging kindergarten artwork (crookedly) to serving cookies at conference night (without plastic gloves), all my work was applauded and thanked, inordinately.

So, I got cocky. The next school my kids attended was what I had always thought of as the little parochial school at the corner, but which, I soon learned, attendees regarded as a bastion of Exclusivity, Privilege and Tradition. In these halls of values-based Christian education, my Chinese-born daughter coped with Mary Margaret Kelly, the little darling who spent third grade calling Emma “Flat Face” and creating clever imitations of Asians by pulling up her own eyes at the corners.

Deep in the mommy trenches, I had my own set of bullies with which to contend. I volunteered in Mary Katherine’s kindergarten class for post-Christmas-program costume folding. Happily lost in my work (sloppy but enthusiastic, that’s my motto) I was startled to hear actual tskking behind my shoulder. “We don’t fold that way HERE,” a mommy sniffed, elbowing me aside to finish the job correctly. It didn’t take me more than a few more episodes like this to teach me a valuable lesson – don’t volunteer at the kids’ school, ever. 

These were clearly mommies of a different order than the happy, carefree sorts I’d encountered at the public school. It seemed as if these women, who had probably all been presidents of their own sororities, were now vying for some top spot in a new pecking order. As my brilliant friend Nancy Pratt says of these Mombies, “Honey, get off the float; the homecoming parade is over.” 

So, to spare myself from repeated bitch slapping, I concentrated my efforts elsewhere. I’d been a school volunteer no-show for so long that, when Emma entered high school, I was cautious. Big, inclusive, flaky and flexible would be the four words that best describe her high school, however, and I soon found that my volunteering efforts had returned to the status they’d had when Emma was in second grade – sorely needed and unconditionally appreciated.

Still, I always think it's a good idea to exercise caution when dealing with large groups of well-educated, perimenopausal women, who constitute the bulk of the high school’s volunteer corps. As a mommy foot soldier, I’ve learned to arrive on time, keep my eyes down and continue to ask, “What can I do next?”

I usually raise my hand for tasks that involve moving tables and lifting chairs, as those require the lowest level of skill and zero aesthetic input. Because no matter how nice the group, there’s always an art history major lurking somewhere, and then you’re doomed to endless rearranging. I was recently helping to set up a silent auction and found myself paired with a woman who actually stood back and made a little director’s square with her hands as she surveyed the merchandise. “We just need to fluff these up a bit,” she mused, and at the mention of “fluffing up,” my blood ran cold. I quickly skedaddled and found some tables to move. I have a theory on table-moving, too – I try to blend in with a couple dads right away. Their artistic standards are low and they usually carry the heavy ends of the tables without complaining.

The other trick I’ve learned as a mommy volunteer is to never, ever have an opinion, especially about anything having to do with color schemes. I’ve seen women practically come to blows over shades of teal. Leaving one’s ego at the door is the best way to survive a volunteer stint, since every mommy (but me) arrives with unwavering opinions on matters of decor and styling. At that same silent auction setup, I received specific instructions to place one doo-dad on top of each program at the table settings. (The mommy made me repeat the order back to make sure I understood.) I dutifully maneuvered around the room, completing my task. Fifteen minutes later (while moving a table with a burly dad), I noticed a new woman moving through the ballroom, carefully piling all the doodads up in the center of the tables. Good foot soldier that I am, I hardly noticed.

I can guarantee that I will never volunteer to chair one of these gigs, because I just don’t have that many opinions. Recently, while setting up at an ungodly early hour for a staff appreciation breakfast, I asked the chairwoman if I should put out a stack of napkins I’d found. “All but those green ones,” she told me firmly.  “I just can’t stand pastels!” But then, because this was the flaky public high school, she added, with a self-deprecatory chuckle, “I guess I’m just neurotic that way.” 

I hardly heard her, busy as I was picking out the pastel shades. As long as she didn’t ask me to fluff anything, I was happy to obey.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Cake

It’s not that I generally advocate the use of artificial substances to control behavior. But, in case you live with a teenager or two, I really feel I ought to share a recent discovery that transforms entire populations of adolescents into grateful, euphoric and docile little dears. Well, at least for as long as they're chewing.

My secret:  Cake Balls.

I came across the Cake Ball bible recently, and it changed my life. I haven’t lowered my blood pressure, lost weight or achieved a higher consciousness, but I have experienced the intense sense of personal power that comes from having a kitchen full of youngsters watching my every cake-ball-making move, sitting still like good little children and whimpering “are they done yet?” every now and then.

Cake balls, while powerful in their effects, are disgustingly easy to prepare.  Here are the directions: Bake a cake. Mash it up. Mix the mashed cake with frosting, the way you’ve seen countless one-year-olds do in their birthday home videos. Roll up the resulting mush into small balls. To gild the lily even further, dip the balls of mush in melted chocolate. Let them dry. Serve. Repeat.

You might suggest that kids who love cake balls are just drawn in by the shiny lure of the new. Who wants a wedge of cake lovingly cut by hand (so last century), when one can have an orb that hints, pleasingly, that it was popped out of an extruder at Mr. W. Wonka’s place. If I could shrink wrap them in cellophane, they’d be even more popular; the teens with whom I associate are anti-artisanal to the highest degree.

You'd be right to observe that cake balls are just the same old thing in a different shape. Agreed, but there’s power in continual shape shifting; why do you think Oprah has remained at the top for so long? As a reinforcement to their appeal, a friend recently said that the cake balls were cloyingly reminiscent of her childhood lunchbox favorite, HoHo’s. Eureka! I had a further clue about their secret taste appeal. Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has made a crusade against restaurants and processed food manufacturers who addictively layer fat, sugar and salt to get us hooked and bulk us up. Mixing the sugar of the cake with the fat of the frosting gives the balls a solid two out of three on the addict-o-meter.

Now all I have to do is figure out a way to inject some saline solution into these babies, and my plan for world domination (at least of everyone under 18) is complete.